A True Spartan Heart

by | Mar 26, 2024 | Featured, Spartan Spotlight

Longtime SJSU media producer Keith Sanders, ’82 Radio-Television-Film, preserved hours of SJSU footage after recovering more than 600 videotapes during his tenure on campus. Photo courtesy of Keith Sanders.

The year: 1974. The location: the Sanders family backyard in Saratoga, California. The protagonist: Aspiring teenage filmmaker Keith Sanders. Or, potentially, a larger-than-life homemade robotic snail, its curlique shell painstakingly handcrafted, two six-inch antennae topped with marble eyes.

Keith Sanders' killer snail

Media producer Keith Sanders still has the “killer snail” he created in 1974 for a film project. Photo courtesy of Keith Sanders.

The snail, which Sanders built out of wire, newspaper, glue, paint, foam rubber and wood, was inspired by the world outside his window. 

“At the time, there were a lot of helicopters spraying [the chemical] malathion outside because of an infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies,” he recalls. “The helicopters would fly low over our houses and spray yellow mist to make the fruit flies die, but it wasn’t something you’d want to take a big breath of. So, I wrote a script in which one of the malathion tanks fell off a helicopter and landed onto a tomato patch in our backyard. All these snails get into it and the chemical causes them to mutate. And that’s when the killer snails attacked.”

Sanders, ’82 Radio-Television-Film, who retires this spring after nearly two decades as a media producer and videographer at San José State, still has the oversized handmade snail with robotic eyes he constructed 50 years ago, his script for “The Attack of the Killer Snails” dormant in the attic of his creative mind. The same imaginative impulse that inspired him to transform environmental issues into science fiction has propelled him throughout his years in broadcast news and media production.

“I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to follow my creative passion and get paid for it,” he says.

Following his early days producing stories as a student at San José State, Sanders worked as a promotions editor and News at Noon director at KICU-TV, later executive producing the high-tech business infomercial series “Silicon Valley Careers.” A member of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences since 2000, he served as a two-term president of the San Francisco/Northern California chapter and a four-time Emmy Awards gala producer before being inducted into the SF/Northern California NATAS Silver Circle in 2017. In 2020, he earned a master’s of science degree in instructional design and technology from CSU Fullerton.

Recording — and discovering — history

Keith Sanders

Keith Sanders (center) filming a project at Mission College early in his career. Photo courtesy of Keith Sanders.

After dedicating the first half of his career to broadcast news and Silicon Valley coverage, Sanders returned to his alma mater in 2005 to serve as a media producer for Academic Technology, a department that supports university staff and faculty with audio and visual needs. He collaborated with faculty across all of the university’s nine colleges to record and produce lectures and presentations on a variety of topics.

“Keith is an all-around nice guy, and passionate about his craft,” says Teri Graziani, an SJSU media production specialist who worked alongside Sanders for years. “If Keith was directing it was going to be a good show. [He’s a] talented guy. There’s no other like him.”  

In 2017, when he was tasked with organizing the university’s analog film archive — a project that involved reviewing, digitizing and converting more than 600 videotapes spanning almost 60 years of SJSU footage — Sanders realized that he had stumbled upon a veritable treasure trove. Many of the recordings were made on two-inch quadruplex videotape, the first commercially successful analog videotape format dating back to the late 1950s.

Many of the lectures and recordings Sanders found capture the academic and social culture of life at San José State between the 1950s and the 1980s. In late 2023, he partnered with SJSU Archivist Carli Lowe to present a series of the archived recordings as part of a film festival hosted by King Library.

“If we’re talking about legacy, the project that pleases me most is that I was able to — just by accident, or just by luck — realize the historic nature of these tapes, and find ways to digitize them and pass them on to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library,” he says. “These recordings really offer a sense of what SJSU was like 40 years ago — how big we were and how many different people we touched. You can really see that with this collection.”

“As university archivist, I often receive requests for footage documenting SJSU’s historical events and figures,” says Lowe. “Until Keith brought me his treasure trove of digitized film, I had to turn these researchers away empty-handed. Photographs and papers tell us a lot about university history. The films Keith digitized brings that history to life in a new way.”

One hundred years of Spartan pride

Sanders’ interest in university history didn’t stop there. Perhaps it was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the discovery of decades’ worth of SJSU film, but in the past year, he began seeking ways to demonstrate how the campus has come together as a united community. A writer at heart, he took pen to paper when he learned that in 1922, SJSU college sports began to refer to themselves as “Spartans.” In 1924, SJSU students, faculty and staff voted to agree upon Spartans as the official university mascot. Sanders discovered many examples of how and why Spartans have created community throughout the intervening century, especially while embracing diversity. 

His resulting poem, “A Century of Spartans,” attracted the attention of SJSU President Cynthia Teniente-Matson, and she invited him to read the poem onstage at the Hammer Theatre during her official investiture in February 2024.

“There’s so much history at San José State,” he says. “I was driven to tell the story of SJSU, and of Sammy Spartan. It was a great honor to read it for the president. It was one of the high points of my job here.”

Reflecting on the 50 years since he first staged “The Attack of the Killer Snails” in his parents’ backyard, Sanders says the best singular piece of advice he can share is to develop a wide range of skills. This is especially pertinent in creative or technical fields where professionals are expected to keep pace with the latest tools and technologies.

He believes that this willingness to learn new skills was the secret ingredient that positioned him well to take on big, unexpected creative challenges. Had he not been willing to sort through the hundreds of hours of recordings housed at San José State, he wouldn’t have been able to digitally preserve history for King Library — and he wouldn’t have known what to do with quadruplex videotape had he not learned how to use them during his time at KICU-TV.

“Learn to solve problems and be a generalist, and everyone will want to keep you,” he says. “Show up to work, develop a broad skill set, and be a good employee. Don’t specialize yourself out of a job. Then, once you are established in your career, you can specialize.”

Or, as is the case for this veteran producer and filmmaker: Apply your skills to public service for  nearly 20 years — then complete the “Attack of the Killer Snails” feature.